Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Assessment Gone out of Control

About a week and half ago I received the following email from a former student:
I have a second grader who came home today with a notice that he is below grade level in math and needs to go to after school tutoring. He is really bright and is already in AIG because he reads on a 5th grade level. Based on what I have seen, he can do math just fine, he is just really slow. 
When I told him he was going to have to go to after school help, he cried because he doesn't want to do extra homework. We have friends whose son goes to Kumon for math work, should I look into it? What questions do I need to ask the teacher so that we understand how to help him? Flash cards? I know second grade isn't your thing but do you have some advice?

In short, my recommendations to her were to get more details on this tutoring and how his need was determined.  Specifically I advised her to ask to see multiple work samples and ensure that this determination was not based on a singular assessment.  Today I received a follow up.

Just thought I would update you.  I have spoken with both "L's" teacher and the program coordinator at "L's" school.  He is actually doing really well in math with the exception of this one test that they are using to determine the need for intervention.  It is a two minute timed test that is scored on how many digits (1 and 2 digit addition and subtraction) they get correct in the time allotted.  On all of the other assessments that the teacher has given including word problems, graphing, three digit addition, small fractions, etc he is above the rest of the class. 
The school has yet to be able to tell me exactly what they will be covering in the after school tutoring and the teacher informed me that most of the children who were targeted are declining because they are all in similar situations of good math skills but slower than the target on this particular test.  
We have picked up flash cards to speed up his addition and subtraction of numbers that he should know right off the bat.  I won't know until May if it is paying off but it can't hurt and I can see where he is getting faster as we practice.  I think if we work on that he will be fine by 3rd grade.  I also can't help but think how I had such a mental block during pre-cal my senior year that I almost failed and then made an A in calculus in college.  Sometimes your brain just can't process with everything else going on.
I really appreciate your thoughts both as a teacher and a parent.  I'll let you know how he does after the next test in May.
I was appalled at this practice.  NCLB, RttT, and all other accountability measures have really driven common sense out of our schools.  I asked if I could share this story because I feel it is important for us to discuss.  Her response was, "Yes, please share. I think this also should highlight the need for administrators to communicate better with teachers about which students should be identified as needing help before notifying parents so that teachers are prepared for questions. "

So many things to discuss with this one.  Where do we start?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The lingering effects of testing & grades

I'm giving an assessment today to my sixth grade science students.  It's a common assessment, developed by all the members of my PLC.  We planned the unit according to our state objectives and county pacing guide.  The assessment itself is open book and open notes.  It's our attempt at emphasizing skill development instead of fact regurgitation.  This is only a recently agreed upon approach in our PLC.  It's one I've been insisting on and we've all finally come to agree that it is the best approach.

I've been teaching my kids from this perspective the entire year.  I've told them from day 1 that I hate grades and would never give another if I didn't have to.  I've told them the most important thing for them to learn this year is how to learn, how to ask the right question, how to analyze a situation, how to recognize and evaluate various relationships among data, concepts, etc.  All of our class assignments and instructional strategies happen this way.

Yet, every time they take a common assessment, they form a line at my desk, asking "What does this question mean?" or "Is this the right answer?" or "I don't understand what this is asking?"  It's not like the assessment is so drastically different from what they've seen before.  It's nearly identical!  It becomes so frustrating because roughly 80% of their questions are unnecessary because they have not read the directions or they are too worried about a grade.

We have done such a disservice to our children.  In our attempts at proving we are doing our jobs we are force feeding tons of content knowledge, giving standardized tests with low level norms established as passing grades, and giving crash diet remediation to allow underachievers to retake our already low expectation tests again.  In the process, students have lost the ability to think for themselves.  They don't read directions because someone has always told EXACTLY what to do.  They are afraid to think because the right answer is too important.

But what about the growing number of classrooms like my own where there is pushback against such culture,  where on a daily basis the students thrive in an environment that provides the opportunity to explore and learn and they consistently demonstrate a mastery of not only the content but the development of those higher order thinking, creative, and collaborative skills?  We put a mandated common assessment in front of them and they suddenly become different children.  It's like Order 66 has been activated and completely new personalities take over, erasing any prior history, training, or allegiance.

It's frustrating because I begin to feel like a failure as a teacher.  It's frustrating because it feels like all that we have accomplished as a class has been for naught.  It's depressing because you begin to wonder if you will ever help these precious children you've been given to overcome this curse.  I don't have a solution.  I just need to rant.  Anybody else know what I'm talking about?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Access for Everyone

It's Sunday night and eyes all around the world are focused on the Super Bowl.  Quite a few members of my PLN are working steadily on sending out links and resources via Twitter with one eye on the game and providing updates on their favorite commercials.  I'm no different, except now I find myself preparing the pre-game show for Tuesday night's #edchat.  I regret that class will keep me from participating Tuesday night, but I want to express some of my thoughts now anyway.

One of the topics in this week's #edchat poll is How can we guarantee equitable access and use of technology to ensure tech literacy and to support meaningful learning for all students?  In my opinion this issue itself should drive the need for classroom instruction embedded with technology more than the workforce's need for 21st Century workers.  Why would I say such a thing?  I'm glad you asked.  If you do not embed technology in your instruction, many of your students will NEVER, I repeat, NEVER, get exposure to, much less develop skills with, the technology.

Now for a disclaimer.  I realize that I may have initially misinterpreted the question.  My first reaction was to read this question in terms of economic access in the home setting, i.e. outside of school.  Shelly Blake-Plock  (aka R. Richard Wojewodzki) has begun quite an interesting conversation about this over at TeachPaperless.  That is certainly an issue worth debating, but that's not my task for this post.  Upon further reflection, I think the intent of the question relates more to equitable access WITHIN the school, not outside of it.  That also is an issue in this day of limited resources.

Regardless of how one interprets the question, I think the answer lies in the notion of embedded instruction.  Yes, I'm using that term again.  Most of the people who will read this post will agree that the use of technology in the classroom should be transparent, or unseen, because it is a natural part of what happens there.  Technology is not just a game day in the lab or special art project on the laptops or our once-a-month-do-something with the iPods.  It is used as an appropriate tool for the task at hand.  So, how do we make that happen?

First, appropriation of funds have to change.  Our county took a 90% budget cut this school year in our technology funding because of the state government's own economic woes.  That's screwed up thinking.  Technology should not be a line item.  It should be part of instructional and curricular materials.  As a side note, there is rumor we will delay updating and changing the standard course of study because we cannot afford to buy new textbooks.  Another example of misguided thinking - textbooks (and their publi$her$) should not drive curriculum changes.  

Aaron Eyler has written an excellent post about how we could rework our budgets to begin to bring more technology into the schools.  I don't think his proposal is all that crazy.  Here are my ideas. This is a pic of a mini laptop cart that was put together by our tech facilitator.  Total cost:  about $2700.  You might could do it cheaper - our district quote sheet is lame.  Get one for every class.  Quit buying new textbooks every time the standard course of study changes.  Find a good solid text with the essentials in it and purchase a classroom set.

Will every class need the same amount of technology?  It should need some, even the PE teachers. My friend David Hines uses a wiki with his weight training class.  At the risk of sounding elitist or trying to make the rich richer, outfit those who already use the technology first.  Tell the others their cart is coming and in the meantime get them trained and get them using it.  At a local high school the principal gave an LCD projector to every teacher who took the Intel Teaching Essentials class.  Amazingly, he had almost 100% participation.

In terms of training, provide REAL professional development.  Don't bring in someone with a cookie cutter approach that demos all the Gee Whiz features of their product.  Have real live actual teachers show how things can be embedded (there's that word again).  Have math teacher share with math teachers, science teachers with science teachers, etc.  Provide a demo at every faculty meeting so teachers can see examples from other content areas and cross pollination can occur.

I go back to the need.  One-third of my students do not even own a computer at home.  Roughly ten percent were unable to process simple tasks like sign on to their school provided email address, change their passwords, etc. at the beginning of the year.  If I (and I mean I- not many others are providing that opportunity) do not provide access to the technology, these students will never touch a computer, or an iPod, or whatever gizmo we use.  Whether we like it or not, schools have become the guardian of civilization.  We have access to the students.  Let's give them access to the tools.